In the context of the sixth state reform, the institutional legislator has reformed the Senate into a full-fledged Chamber of the federated states. This reform substantially curtailed the legislative powers of the Senate, which logically resulted in an expansion of the powers of the Chamber of Representatives. Since the sixth state reform entered into force, the Chamber is exclusively competent for most part of the federal legislation and has residual legislative powers. As compensation for the expansion of the unicameral procedure, the Chamber can now fulfill a reflective and supervisory role via a second reading of proposed legislation.
To offset the possible negative consequences of the expansion of the unicameral procedure and, more specifically, to avoid the risk of a rash adoption of bills, the constitutional amendment of January 6, 2014 altered article 76 of the Constitution. This article now stipulates that the Chamber’s internal rules should provide in a procedure for a second reading. A thorough second reading enables an additional (fully or partly) discussion or vote of different provisions of a bill. This second reading can take place both within the committee and within the plenary session.
For a second reading in the plenary session, the new article 94, n° 1 of the Chamber’s rules requires a request of the Chamber president or of one-third of the members. This is a strengthening of the former rules regarding the second reading, which could previously also be requested, since before the sixth state reform it was sufficient that only one member asked for a second reading. There is however also a softening of the rules, since it is no longer needed that amendments are adopted in order to proceed to a second reading. So, when the required majority is represented, it is possible to have a second reading on a not-amended bill. The plenary session will decide during the second reading on the basis of the report of the responsible committee. Thus, the text of the bill always returns to and is discussed in the competent commission. The plenary session is entitled to propose amendments to articles adopted during the first reading or to texts adopted by the committee.
For a second reading within the committee, the rules are less rigid than for a second reading in the plenary session. The Chamber’s rules stipulate that a request can be submitted by a single member of the committee or, when it concerns a draft bill that has been returned from the Senate to the Chamber, by one-third of the members of the committee. When a member of the committee requests for a second reading after the vote of the articles, the committee is bound to proceed to this, even when no amendments have been adopted or no articles have been rejected. Before a second reading within the committee, a “cooling off-period” of ten days is provided for (article 83, n° 1 of the Chamber’s rules). This means that a second reading will not take place until 10 days after the committee report and the text adopted by the committee have been distributed. This cooling-off period is not provided in case of a second reading in the plenary session.
The second reading in practice
Hitherto, the second reading has already been applied five times. The first time, this happened for the bill for the establishment of parentage of the co-mother and the introduction of equality between men and women in the way of name transfer to the child and the adopted child. Another second reading was requested for the bill on the reform of the court registry duties, the bill laying down provisions for the public sector pensions, the bill to improve the employment (index skip), and recently the bill relating to provisions concerning the secured supply of energy.
A second reading might indeed be used by the opposition to pressure for getting concessions in certain cases. After all, the legislative procedure can be seriously delayed by a second reading. Moreover, the new regulation increases the power of the opposition, since each member of the opposition within the committee can request for a second reading, even when the text has not been amended. Therefore the risk of political games should not be underestimated.
To avoid this problem, the government is entitled to ask for urgent action. In case of urgent action, the cooling off-period will be shortened to a five days term for the second reading within the committee.
Voices from the Chamber of Representatives
We found some members of parliament prepared to give a short evaluation of the benefits and efficiency of the second reading in the Chamber of Representatives.
According to Professor of Constitutional Law Hendrik Vuye, also chairman of N-VA in the Chamber, a second reading seems at first sight advisable in order to improve the quality of the legislation, but he has his personal doubts whether a second reading is really the most useful way to obtain better legislation. The recommendations of the Council of State and the legal services of the Chamber indeed already contribute to an improvement of the legislation. Vuye thinks that the second reading will too often be used by the opposition as a pressure.[…]
Egbert Lachaert, representative for Open Vld and also member of the majority, shares the view that the second reading is nowadays too often used merely as a delaying tactic and not as a means to have a new debate, the lapse of time between the first and second reading being too short. He also points to the fact that, since the introduction of the second reading, scarcely any draft laws have been treated, which could explain the fact that only a few second readings have taken place.
Wouter De Vriendt, representative for the opposition party Groen, agrees to his statement. According to him, it is too soon to draw conclusions. He claims that a second reading shouldn’t systematically take place, but he does see the second reading as a useful instrument to control the coherence, especially for highly technical texts and/or strongly amended texts. A second reading can also be helpful when the adoption of a legal text involves a lot of practical questions.
Apart from the second reading, the Chamber’s rules also provide the possibility to have a third reading. This possibility is only reserved for the plenary session and not for the committee. A third reading will of course not be proceeded to by the members of the Chamber until a second reading has taken place. If the Chamber adopts certain amendments during this second reading, MP’s can request a third reading. The vote of the bill will then be postponed to a later session.
The second reading within the Chamber has been introduced during the sixth state reform as a compensation for the termination of the Senate’s task as a chamber of reflection which regularly held second readings of legislation. Although a second reading within the Chamber aims at improving the quality of the legislation, the comments made by the above-mentioned members of parliament demonstrates that, in practice, the second reading does not seem to be a proper substitution for the formerly obligatory or optional bicameral procedure. At least for the time being, it is applied only from time to time and is mainly used by the opposition to delay the legislative procedure. From our point of view, in certain unicameral matters a second reading should better be made obligatory again, in order to guarantee the quality of legislation.
1) A. Rezsohazy and M. Van Der Hulst, “Parlementair recht. De verdeling van de wetgevende bevoegdheid tussen Kamer en Senaat na de zesde Staatshervorming”, TvW 2014, nr.1, 40- 57.;
Parliamentary law. The distribution of legislative powers between the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate after the sixth state reform
2) G. Van Der Biesen, “De nieuwe wetgevingsprocedure” in A. Alen, B. Dalle, K. Muylle, W. Pas, J. Van Nieuwenhove and W. Verrijdt (eds.), Het federale België na de zesde staatshervorming, Brugge, die Keure, 2014, (125) 139.
The new legislative procedure
3) G. Van Der Biesen, “Parlementair recht. De zesde staatshervorming en de kwaliteit van de wet (deel 2)”, TvW 2014, nr.2, 126-135.
Parliamentary law. The sixth state reform and the quality of the law (part 2)